Grassroots or AstroTurf?

by Sidney Blumenthal & r & They're crowing about I-912, the anti-roads repair initiative that would veto the transportation package painfully passed by a bipartisan majority of the 2005 Legislature. They're responsible for getting it on the November ballot.

Who's doing all the crowing? That would be Seattle's KVI radio drivetime talk hosts, Kirby Wilbur and John Carlson, who hammered the anti-tax-damn-the-consequences message and coordinated the boots on the ground morning and evening from April to July in the populous urban and suburban Puget Sound area.

You know Carlson. He's not only the host of the highest-rated afternoon drive talk show in Seattle, he was the reasonably extreme 2000 GOP gubernatorial candidate who managed to poll fewer votes than the laughably extreme 1996 GOP gubernatorial candidate Ellen Craswell.

No political novice, in the '90s, Carlson spearheaded the passage of I-200 which killed affirmative action; he was also the force behind conservative law and order initiatives like Three Strikes You're Out and Hard Time for Armed Crime.

Kirby Wilbur is a longtime GOP stalwart who has the most listened-to morning drive news talk in Seattle. A real estate appraiser before becoming a talker, Kirby's schtick is homey, Washington state smarm, and he's beloved by a large caffeinated audience.

Republican political consultant Brett Bader was hired by the No New Gas Tax group and in 32 days, with no paid drive, they gathered nearly double the signatures needed. Using the Internet, they provided downloadable petitions from their Web site and stuffed petitions in Eastern Washington newspapers out of range of their radio station.

If I-912 passes in November, it would defund the massive roads bill that was to address hundreds of statewide road and bridge repairs neglected for 20 years. It would spend nearly $200 million in Spokane County.

So what's wrong with fixing the roads? Nothing, of course, if we could do it without money. The mortal sin of the package is that it funds itself with the only legal means left for roads funding -- raising the tax on gas.

The I-912 campaign has no transportation plan except they don't plan to pay more for gas. The alternative they have to fixing the roads is not fixing the roads.

This initiative really opposes the bipartisan majority of the people's duly elected representatives -- not the "establishment elites," as the talk radio blabberjockeys paint the opposition. For once, politicians did what we always say we want politicians to do: They did what needed to be done, though risky, unpopular and easily demagogued.

Thurston County Judge Christopher Wickham recognized talk radio's unfair advantage in the signature-gathering campaign. He ordered KVI Radio and Fisher Broadcasting to report the value of the two talk-show hosts' comments promoting Initiative 912.

"Each host is entitled to his own opinion on the issues of the day," Dennis Kelly, a top suit at Fisher Broadcasting, KVI's parent company told AP's Dave Ammons. "We don't agree with the premise of the ruling. If the judge's ruling holds, it will have a chilling effect on talk and news shows across America."

If Carlson and Wilbur had left their months of wall-to-wall infomercials to only "opinions on the issues," there'd be no problem. It's the organizing, strategizing and being an on-air logistical clearinghouse that goes against campaign disclosure rules.

Campaign workers checked in on-air; campaign coordinates were shared, phone numbers broadcast, contact information exchanged, meetings arranged, petition drops announced and money raised.

Talk radio, with its daily direct line into the ears of tens of thousands of folks trapped in their cars, is powerful indeed. These talkers have built a listener community that they use effectively for political activities -- most of which fits easily within the boundaries of campaign disclosure laws.

These talk show hosts led the media in the post-gubernatorial election mess. They stoked the outrage, putting Christine Gregoire's poll numbers in the toilet. A day after the judge ruled against Rossi, these guys started transferring this rage to the anti-gas initiative.

The opposition to I-912 is led by Republican ex-Governor Dan Evans and former Democratic Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman (an ex-Association of Washington Business president) along with Richland Republican Rep. Shirley Hankins. The state's business and farm communities, Carlson's usual allies, have joined environmentalists, labor and mainstream Republicans to fight this partisan maneuver.

Carlson slurs them as "elites," but no matter how elite they are, they're at a tremendous disadvantage trying to counter the unfair way I-912 was and will be promoted for free on the radio. The opposition, no matter how affluent, couldn't buy this valuable airtime -- nor a fraction of the continuous daily political infomercials afforded the Just Say No to Roads campaign by these talkers.

These are public airwaves; they don't belong to this Republican rump cabal bent on vetoing a roads repair package passed by a Legislature which finally did something important and brave.

Even though some brave Republicans (now being savaged on KVI) helped pass this much-needed package, the GOP is endorsing the anti-roads bill county by county.

It's a cynical Karl Rove strategy in micro, using talk radio to demagogue an issue to make Democrats look bad in a state where Republicans can't get elected -- and damn the consequences.

This cynical populism is really about embarrassing a Democratic Legislature and Gov. Gregoire. It's about winning Republican power and influence disproportionate to their minority numbers. It's about driving up Carlson and Wilbur's already considerable clout in the Republican Party. It's about keeping government barefoot and pregnant -- at least while the Democrats are in charge.

It's about defeating Democrats and electing Republicans.

Michael Hood is a Seattle journalist whose progressive watchblog, & lt;a href="" & BlatherWatch & lt;/a & keeps an ear on talk radio and its interface with politics.

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